Irish roots with the bit of Jo’burg dog: Curtis Campher has arrived

He made an empowering, mature debut against England last week with bat and ball

Ireland’s Curtis Campher during the second ODI cricket match against England at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. Photograph: Getty Images

Ireland’s Curtis Campher during the second ODI cricket match against England at the Ageas Bowl in Southampton. Photograph: Getty Images

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Curtis Campher never ‘got’ an Irish passport. He always had one. This was not a shotgun wedding.

Call it good fortune or prescience. His father Paul, the son of a Derry woman, Helena McDevitt, who moved to South Africa after the Second World War, warmed to the idea of his youngest son Curtis and his older brother Colin keeping the green connection alive.

Two generations later Curtis is repaying Ireland for the gift of his grandmother, his heritage, his cricket DNA. Although he never met her, his move to Ireland has coincided with a kind of a reverse migration and 70 years on other members of the Campher extended family will be moving to Dublin next year.

“So that’s kind of gonna be my connection this side. They have Irish passports as well,” he says. “From a young age my dad always wanted us to get Irish passports because he had one. It was a thing in our family.”

The family thing has shunted Campher centre stage of the Irish cricket scene and last week into public consciousness. An empowering, mature debut against England with bat and ball and the 21-year-old new face drew people closer. It wasn’t just Campher’s numbers but a combative spirit, his scorched earth policy attitude on the pitch.

He says he grew up with sport in his back garden in Fourways, a northern suburb of Johannesburg with mum, dad and the brother. With the four years older brother it was typically a school of hard knocks.

Cricket, hockey and golf competed for family attention. Curtis was selected for a South African Under-17 hockey training camp but cricket had stolen his heart. Colin, a scratch golfer played in the University circuit as an amateur but forfeited the opportunity to follow his father into the professional ranks. Dad, Paul, played on the South African PGA Tour and also spent time in the USA.

“My dad played professional golf in South Africa and went to the states a bit. That’s why we, as a family play a lot of golf with cricket and hockey,” he says.

“He played on the Tour in the States but not the PGA Tour one of the other Tours. He retired from playing golf before I was born. My mum had me at 34 so I was a bit of late one.”

Ireland batsman Curtis Campher hit 127 runs in his first two games in green during his debut ODI series against England last week. Photograph: Getty Images
Ireland batsman Curtis Campher hit 127 runs in his first two games in green during his debut ODI series against England last week. Photograph: Getty Images

Yes, he says, he plays golf. Yes, he says, he’s a single figure handicap. Yes, he says, he has played golf in Ireland, a couple of times with fellow Irish cricketer, Harry Tector, in Portmarnock when golf opened up and before the Irish cricket bubble.

“It’s incredible. It’s a bit different because of the wind and the links conditions. But I’ve really loved playing. In fact it’s been one of my highlights in terms of the golfing side and moving over. I’ve played twice in Portmarnock with Harry.”

Campher’s impact on Ireland came after just two games into his debut ODI series against England last week where he hit 127 runs. A 59 not out in the first match and 68 in the second.

In the third of the series Paul Stirling and Andrew Balbirnie did the heavy lifting with the bat and Campher sat it out. But two of his five wickets came there in an inspiring win over the World Champions.

“I wasn’t expecting it to be honest,” he says of being picked to play. “Then Bal (captain Balbirnie) came to my room. I couldn’t believe it. It was unfortunate that we went down in the first two. But it was amazing to be part of the history making and beating England. I think I would trade those two performances of mine to beat England any day of the week.”

The young face is that mix of well spoken modesty, old fashioned values and super charged, cut throat ambition

While cricket loves its numbers and constantly measures players by their data, Campher brought something just as compelling with the bit of Jo’burg dog inside. He brought a particular mentality, laid out how he intends to play the game. When Ireland needed brawl and contest he was there bringing the war to England. It didn’t come as a surprise.

“Yes 100 per cent,” he says. Unwavering. Certain about that. “That’s been me my whole career. I have never been the most technically correct batter or bowler. But that has been one thing I have tried to keep throughout my whole, short career, through school and out of school to have that edge factor in terms of never, ever lying down. Never out of the fight.

“That’s what I have tried to bring to all the teams I’ve played in. Hopefully we can breathe that fire or that kind of feeling through the whole team, that everyone wants it so badly.

“It was sad to see how we batted in the first innings. But it was unbelievable to see us when we batted in the third innings. That’s what the guys are capable of and it’s nice to see them do it. I hope that we can do that on a day to day basis.”

Because of the way this season has fractured, he is now in quarantine preparing to play his first game on Irish soil with YMCA later this month. He was in Ireland in April but when the virus struck out sport, his club debut was delayed. His emerging contract with Ireland, which he hopes and expects to be renewed, runs until the end of the year.

The break though has been fast and to the public, at least, unforeseen. But it was long in the making. Campher’s pedigree was recognised as far back as 2017. His career acceleration over the last eight months has been in the pipeline for almost three years.

He trained with Ireland in 2016 when the team travelled to play South Africa. Following an informal chat with Irish wicketkeeper Niall O’Brien, momentum picked up and led to “a big chat with Fordie” (the Ireland head coach, South African born Graham Ford).

“It was quite tough at the beginning, not a tough decision in terms of my cricket career because I always knew this was going to be the right option for me,” he says. “But it was tough in terms of leaving the family and everything behind and moving over. That was the decision I had to make - at what age would I feel like I’d be ready to move over.

“I talked to a few coaches back home and they said there is no point in going at 18 as it would be tough on you and perhaps your performances won’t show. Rather develop a bit more in South Africa and get the cricketing and the maturity up. I think I have made the right decision to wait a couple of years.”

Former England cricketer and current commentator Kevin Pietersen had kind words to say about the all-rounder’s batting, which made him the first man in history to score back-to-back half-centuries and take wickets in each of his first two ODIs. A nice recognition, Pieterson perhaps chiming with Campher his own African origins and where he ended up.

It has sharpened Campher’s appetite, for himself, for the team, Dublin, YMCA. Everything.

The young face is that mix of well spoken modesty, old fashioned values and super charged, cut throat ambition. Respect for conventions and etiquette are ingrained. He references Rory McIlroy’s respectful replacement of his ball in a worse position at the recent US PGA because he did not wish to take unfair advantage of a ruling.

“McIlroy replacing the ball? At the end of the day it is a sport that you play,” he says. “Who you are as a person is more important.”

“Yeah, it took me back a bit to hear KP complimenting my batting style. Really happy to get some praise from guys who have been there and done it. I’m young so people need to tell me. With Graham Ford playing a major role in KP’s career, hopefully Fordie can have a massive impact on mine. He has had such a big one so far.”

It’s just the beginning of this Derry Air. There’s more to come. People are already listening.

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